SANDWICH: The long-awaited return of the British Open got under way under blue skies at Royal St. George’s on Thursday as former champion Louis Oosthuizen shot to the top of the leaderboard with a six under par round of 64.
Another previous Open winner Jordan Spieth is just one shot back, alongside fellow American Brian Harman.
Richard Bland was given the honour of hitting the opening shot of the 149th Open Championship and the Englishman, who won his first European PGA Tour title this season at the 478th attempt, struck his drive straight down the fairway.
“It was very special, very nerve-racking,” Bland told reporters. “This is what it’s all about. The nerves definitely sort of cranked up a little bit and I was glad to hit one in the fairway.”
Up to 32,000 fans will take to the course in Sandwich, Kent, each day as Covid-19 restrictions ease in England despite a spike in positive cases.
“It feels the most normal of any tournament I think that we’ve played thus far relative to that same tournament in previous years pre-Covid,” said Spieth, aiming to emulate his success at Royal Birkdale in 2017.
Fans have been allowed this year as part of a government test event and warm applause rippled around the links course.
“The Open is a very special venue, a very special tournament for everyone,” Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, told reporters. “To be able to be clapped onto every tee, every green makes a big difference in this game and it’s been fantastic to have them back.”
Oosthuizen has been frustrated so far this year in his attempt to add to his only major triumph, a dominant victory in the 2010 British Open at St Andrews.
The South African finished second in this year’s two most recent majors, the US PGA Championship and US Open, and is now in contention again after tying the lowest opening round at Royal St. George’s. Christy O’Connor Jr had a 64 in 1981.
After starting with seven straight pars, Oosthuizen accelerated around the turn with seven birdies in 10 holes.
“I’ve learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing,” said Oosthuizen. “Probably in my mind, the perfect round I could have played. I didn’t make many mistakes. When I had good opportunities for birdie, I made the putts. So just a very good solid round.”
Spieth has refound his form of late with a victory at the Texas Open in April — his first in nearly four years.
“Golf is a game played between the ears,” added the three-time major champion. “When it’s not going great, you can certainly lose quite a bit of confidence. “That was the first time I’ve had to really try and build confidence back up, and it takes time.”
Spieth shot up the leaderboard thanks to four consecutive birdies between the fifth and the eighth holes and finished strongly by picking up two more shots at 15 and 16.
There was plenty of good scoring on a course where soft fairways and greens because of recent rain negated the impact of its storied undulations.
Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes, on his British Open debut, South African Dylan Frittelli and American veteran Stewart Cink are two off the lead after rounds of 66.
England’s Justin Rose, Willett, Andy Sullivan and Jack Senior carded 67s along with South African Justin Harding, American Scottie Scheffler and South Korea’s An Byeong-Hun.
World number one Dustin Johnson started with a solid 68 and Brooks Koepka, a serial contender for major championships, kept himself in the hunt with a round of 69 despite bogeying the 18th.
Pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm, the recently crowned US Open champion, was stung by a double bogey at the par four ninth, but finished with a birdie for a one over round of 71.
Shane Lowry, the reigning British Open champion, made a nightmare start to his title defence with bogeys on the opening two holes before the Irishman pulled a shot back to finish on one over.
Bryson DeChambeau accepted before the tournament his booming drives off the tee may have to be tempered this week, with staying out of the lush rough the key to remaining in contention for the weekend.
However, DeChambeau consistently found himself hacking out of what he described as “diabolical” hay in an up and down round that contained four birdies and five bogeys for a 71.
“If I can hit it down the middle of the fairway, that’s great, but with the driver right now, the driver sucks,” said DeChambeau.
Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy’s quest to end a seven-year major drought got off to a much better start than at the Northern Irishman’s last British Open appearance.
He birdied the first on Thursday after a quadruple bogey on home soil at the opening hole in Portrush two years ago.
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2021